Yesterday Isabell, Margaret, Bill and I met up at Jean’s house to begin the long task of cleaning and sorting. This Friday it will be two months since she died, and I have a feeling that I have only begun the process of missing her. Jean is Bill’s mother, so technically she was my ex-mother-in-law, but that hardly describes the relationship that actually grew deeper after Bill and I separated and then divorced, and deeper again as Jean began to need more help. It was nice being in the living room yesterday morning with the fall sunshine coming through the windows and Jean’s things all around; even though we had come up to work we spent almost an hour sitting and talking and catching up with each other’s lives.
We didn’t talk much about Jean. There doesn’t seem to be much left to say. It feels as though this whole summer was dedicated to the process of Jean’s dying, and to the mystery of death. Jean’s death was her choice: a few days after her 87th birthday she admitted that she had developed a bedsore, and that it had become infected; in consultation with her doctor she decided to keep the wound cleaned and dressed, and do whatever was necessary to manage the pain, but not take any antibiotics. “I feel as though my body has given me an opportunity,” she said, “and I’m going to take it.” It took a little less than a month for the infection to overwhelm her, but in that month we all were able to finish any unfinished business we had with Jean, to talk to her, and after the pain got too intense and the morphine began, just to sit with her and hold her hand.
The world feels very alive this morning. It’s Sunday and the house is quiet, but with autumn here it’s cool enough to keep the windows open. The chickens are making busy noises in their pen; birds call in the distance against the barely audible sizz-sizz-sizz of late season insects. Down the hill a train passes the crossing with a long low wail.
I ran into an old friend at a blues club last night. “Hey,” he said, “I heard about your arrest.” He shook his head. “You’ve got more courage than I do.” That’s hardly true: Jim teaches middle school English with unflagging enthusiasm for his students. I think good teachers have a wonderful steadfast courage that the rest of us don’t have. But I’ll admit that it did take some courage on my part to step out into an intersection on a January afternoon and wait for the handcuffs. It was the day after the announcement that the president planned to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. I had been expecting the announcement all week—everyone had. The weekend before the announcement I spent an afternoon down at the Green Bean feeling angrier and angrier and more and more helpless. Sitting there with my laptop, I composed an email and pushed “send” before I could let myself think better of it:
“It looks as though the announcement of a ‘troop surge” is inevitable sometime during this coming week,” I wrote, “in spite of what the Democrats in Congress say, in spite of what the American people want, and certainly in spite of what the Iraqi people wish for. I was outraged when the war began four years ago. I became involved in anti-war work, I learned things and met people and felt my own surge of hopefulness and energy. But four years is a long time and as the war has ground on I’ve grown distracted, discouraged and frustrated. I haven’t stopped caring, but I’ve stopped doing much about it. Now I can’t sit it out any longer. This is intolerable. This ‘troop surge’ is a stupid, arrogant, wrong-headed mistake that will kill thousands and thousands of people. If I just grumble about it to my friends and nurse my own sense of helpless frustration then I’m participating in the mistake. So here’s where I’ll be taking my stand: if President Bush announces a strategy that includes increased US troops in Iraq, I will be standing at the intersection of Market and Elm Streets at 4:30 on the afternoon of the next day. I don’t know what I’ll be doing, I don’t even know if anyone will be there with me, I just know that I have to be visible and vocal and present. Please feel free to pass this along to anyone who may be wrestling with the same feelings. I know there are a lot of us. We need to stay connected with our own outrage before the intolerable becomes so tolerable that we’ll let anything stand unchallenged.”
I really honestly didn’t know what I was going to do. All week I had a sleepy, inward-turning sort of feeling of being swept towards something I couldn’t predict or control, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. The Sunday afternoon after I sent out the email Bill, Margaret, Isabell, Isabell’s partner Nego, and I got together at a coffee shop to talk about Jean. She was growing weaker and needed more help with everyday things; we met to work out a new visitation schedule.
After the meeting Isabell, Nego and I stayed on to finish our cups of tea. “I don’t know why I assumed, Mom, when I read that email that you meant you were going to go out into the street,” Isabell said.
“I’m brave, but I’m not that brave,” I said. “I just meant that I really don’t know what I’m going to do. Stand on a street corner with a sign I guess.”
“I’m actually kind of relieved,” Isabell said.
“But still…” It was Nego. Isabell and I looked at her. “I mean when is it the right time for civil disobedience? When is enough enough?” There was a long silence. Finally Isabell laughed and got that mischief-making look in her eyes that I remember from when she was small. “I will if you will,” she said.
I said “I will if you will.”
Nego said “I will.”
So we agreed that when the moment came we would all step off the sidewalk and go into the street.
The thing that kept sticking in my mind in the next days as we waited for the announcement to come was the word “troop.” A troop is not a military unit, I kept thinking to myself, a troop is a person. A unique, individual and irreplaceable person, a person whose death will leave a hole in the world, and a person whose life will be stamped forever with the experience of war. A few weeks before Christmas a young soldier named Ian had spent a couple of nights at my house; he was about to be discharged from the army, he had heard about our household and was interested in learning more about collective living. He talked about his experiences in Iraq—about the things he heard from other soldiers before he went over there, the crudeness and anger and casual cruelty. “You think you’ll never be like that,” he said, “but after you’ve been there a while it changes you. It changes you.”
Ian is not a troop. The men I know from Food Not Bombs still struggling with the demons they brought home from Vietnam forty years ago are not troops. Jean’s father, damaged forever by his experiences as a medical aide in the First World War, driven inward and away from his family, was not a troop. My friend Nancy’s son Max, the same age as Margaret, who did a tour of duty in Iraq is not a troop. David Cline, a tireless anti-war organizer and Vietnam vet who died two weeks ago, was not a troop. I met Dave in March of 2005 when I was helping with a big antiwar rally in Fayetteville, NC; I’m not even sure we actually met, but the urgency of his presence and the power of his haunted, ravaged face left me feeling as though we had had an unforgettable conversation.
The morning after the troop surge announcement I was up at Jean’s, cooking some things to put in her freezer for the coming week. I liked being up there in the mornings when I would overlap with Jean’s helper Hermena; that morning Jean and Hermena came into the kitchen as I was washing up the last of the pans. I thought about the pros and cons, and decided to go ahead and say it: “Do you ladies know what I’m going to do this afternoon? I think I’m going to be arrested.”
After their expressions of shock and amazement Jean told me she was proud of me. She shook her head and said: “I think you’re crazy, but I’m proud of you.” Then Hermena spoke. I had forgotten that her son was in the Marines, awaiting orders. As soon as I remembered I wished I hadn’t said anything, I wished I hadn’t talked about the meaning of the word “troop.” Hermena closed he refrigerator forcefully and turned.
“So you’re telling me that that man is going to send my son to Iraq and when he comes back he’s not going to be my son?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You go out there this afternoon,” she said. “There are a lot of mothers who can’t be there. You go out there for them. You go out there for me and for my son.”
And so I did. Nine of us were arrested that day. Isabell and I were arrested together. That was on January 11; it’s now the last day of September. In those months 800 more American military people and close to 20,000 Iraqis have died, and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards all say that if one of them becomes president we will probably still have troops in Iraq in 2013. On the other hand, I heard from Ian recently that he is back in Boston busy forming a chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Max is back home safe and has just started college. Hermena’s son is still over there.
There are lots of ways to be brave. There are brave ways to live and there are brave ways to die. There are big ways to be brave and small ways to be brave, public ways to be brave and intimate, personal, private ways to be brave. I think the bravest thing any of us can do is listen to that little voice that speaks through the din of everyday existence, the voice that doesn’t always tell us what to do, but that never lies, the voice that simply says to us when we need to hear it: “It’s time.”
credit: Jahan Salehi